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The Definitive Guide to Copyright  

  • Brand Protection
  • Content Protection

What is it and how can you benefit?

Copyright is a complex area of the law, so understanding what it is and the different rights you have is crucial for protecting your own creations and ensuring you are not infringing the rights of others.

In this guide, we will be unpacking what copyright is, how long different protection lasts, how to avoid infringing on the copyright of others, and what steps you can take to ensure your original works are protected.

Copyright is a legal right that grants the creators of original works exclusive control over the use and distribution of their creations.  

This protection applies to a wide range of creative, intellectual, or artistic forms or “works.” Common examples include literature, music, art, web content, software and other forms of intellectual property

The rights granted by copyright law protect creators against the ability to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, and create derivative works based on the original creation. These rights give creators control over the use of their creations and provide them with the opportunity to financially benefit from their works. 

Copyright: The basics 

This section covers the basics of copyright. Read on to learn the different types of copyright, what the copyright process is, how long copyright lasts and how copyright law differs across the globe. 

Copyright protects a variety of creative and original works. The following are common categories of works that are eligible for copyright protection:  

Literary works: This category includes novels, short stories, poems, articles, essays, and other written works. 

Musical works: Original compositions and musical arrangements are protected by copyright. This includes both the musical notation and the actual sound recording. 

Dramatic works: This includes plays, scripts, screenplays, and other works intended for performance. 

Artistic works: Copyright protects visual arts, such as paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, and other visual creations. 

Architectural works: Original designs of buildings and other structures are eligible for copyright protection. 

Audiovisual works: This category encompasses works that combine visual and auditory elements, including movies, TV shows, and online videos. 

Sound Recordings: The actual recorded sounds, separate from the musical or lyrical composition, are protected by copyright. 

Software: Copyright protects computer programs and software code. 

Compilations and Derivative works: Collections of pre-existing materials and works that are based on or derived from existing works are eligible for copyright protection. Examples include a film based on a play or a novel, or an encyclopedia.  

Broadcasts and Performances: Copyright can protect the rights of broadcasters and performers in their respective performances. 

It’s important to note that copyright protection does not extend to ideas, facts, systems, or methods of operation. It protects the tangible expression of ideas rather than the ideas themselves. Additionally, copyright protection is not perpetual; it has a limited duration, after which the work enters the public domain and can be freely used by the public.  

The ownership of copyright generally belongs to the creator or author of the original work. However, factors such as how the work was created can also determine ownership. 

It is important to note the specifics of copyright ownership can vary by jurisdiction, and certain rules may apply differently to different types of works. Additionally, contractual agreements play a significant role in determining who owns the copyright for particular works.  

Your works are generally automatically protected by copyright upon creation, however, there are still steps you can take to enhance your rights. Here’s a simplified overview of the copyright process.

Creation of the work 

Copyright protection begins as soon as an original work is created and fixed in a tangible medium, such as writing, recording, or saving on a computer. 

Originality and creativity 

In order to qualify for copyright protection, the work must be original and meet the minimum creativity requirement. Works completely lacking in creativity will be denied copyright protection, however it’s worth noting that only a relatively low level of creativity is required so most works do meet the criteria.  
 
No formal registration required 

In many countries, including the United States and United Kingdon, there is no requirement for formal registration with a copyright office to gain basic copyright protection. The copyright is automatic upon creation of the works. 

Use of the © symbol 

While it is not legally required, using the copyright symbol (©), along with the creator’s name and the year of creation, can serve as a notice to the public that the work is claimed under copyright. 

Registration (optional) 

As we have previously mentioned, registration is not mandatory – however creators can choose to register their works with the relevant copyright office. In the United States, for example, this is the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration provides certain legal benefits, such as having the ability to recover statutory damages and attorney’s fees in case of infringement. 

Deposit copies and application 

When registering, creators typically submit a copy of the work and complete a registration application. The deposit copy allows the copyright office to have a record of the work. 

Duration of copyright 

The duration of copyright varies by jurisdiction and type of work but generally lasts for the life of the author plus a certain number of years. After the copyright expires, the work enters the public domain. Head to this section to learn more about how long copyright lasts.  

Enforcement of rights 

Since copyright is a private right, deciding what to do when someone uses your work without your permission is your choice. There are many steps you can take, including sending a cease-and-desist letter, filing a lawsuit, negotiating settlements or going to court.  

The copyright laws in some countries will differ from others, so it is important to be well versed on what constitutes an infringement within your jurisdiction, as they may vary. 

There are several common types of copyright licenses that we have detailed below. 

All rights reserved (standard copyright) 

This is the default type of copyright license. It grants the copyright holder exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, and display the work. Others can only use the work with the explicit permission of the copyright owner. 

Limited use license 

A limited use license grants users restricted rights to use a particular product or service. An example of this is granting the use of your photograph in a brochure, but if it is then used on a website, a further license would be needed. 

Public domain 

If works are in the public domain, they are not under copyright protection, meaning anyone can use, modify, and distribute them without obtaining permission. Works may enter the public domain because the copyright has expired, or the creator has explicitly waived their rights. 

Creative Commons licenses 

Creative Commons (CC) licenses provide a standardized way for creators to grant permissions beyond the traditional “all rights reserved” approach. There are several types of CC licenses, each allowing different levels of freedom for users. These include: 

  • CC BY (Attribution): Others can use, modify, and distribute the work, even commercially, as long as they credit the original creator. 
  • CC BY-SA (Attribution-ShareAlike): Similar to CC BY, but any derivative works must be licensed under the same terms. 
  • CC BY-NC (Attribution-NonCommercial): Others can use, modify, and distribute the work for non-commercial purposes, with credit to the original creator. 
  • CC BY-ND (Attribution-NoDerivs): Others can use the work commercially or non-commercially, but they cannot create derivative works. 
  • CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike): Similar to CC BY-SA, but for non-commercial purposes. 
  • CC BY-NC-ND (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs): The most restrictive CC license, allowing others to download the works and share them with others, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially. 

General Public License (GPL) 

The GPL is commonly used for open-source software. It allows users to freely use, modify, and distribute the software, but any derivative works must also be open source and use the GPL. 

Apache license 

The Apache license is another open-source software license that allows users to use the software for any purpose, modify it, and distribute it. Like the GPL, it requires derivative works to include the same license. 

Proprietary licenses 

Some copyright holders choose to grant specific permissions through proprietary licenses. These licenses are often used for commercial software and may impose various restrictions on use, distribution, and modification. 

License terminology 

Copyright license terminology can be complex, so understanding key terms is crucial. Here are some common terms related to copyright licenses.

The duration of copyright varies by jurisdiction and the type of work. In most countries, protection lasts for the life of the creation and until 31st December of the year 70 years after their death. The general principles for copyright duration are as follows: 

Individual creators 

In the case of works created by individual authors or creators, copyright protection typically lasts for the life of the author plus a certain number of years. In the United States, this duration is currently the life of the author plus 70 years. 

Works created for hire or corporate authorship 

For works created for hire or works with corporate authorship (e.g., works created by employees as part of their employment), copyright protection lasts for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter. 

Anonymous and pseudonymous works 

For works with anonymous or pseudonymous authorship, or where the author’s identity is not publicly disclosed, copyright protection typically lasts for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter. 

Works created but not published or registered 

If a work is created but not published or registered with the copyright office, the copyright duration may vary. In the United States, the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) grants copyright protection for the life of the author plus 70 years or 95 years from the date of publication, whichever is shorter. 

Public domain 

Once the copyright duration expires, the work enters the public domain, and it can be freely used by the public without the need for permission or payment. 

Copyright law can vary significantly between different jurisdictions and is not statutorily bound, instead being based on treaties. This means no work will be protected by statute in every country, however, there are several international treaties and regulations which were created to try and ensure uniformity amongst member states.   

Berne Convention 

The Berne Convention deals with the protection of works and the rights of their authors. It ensures that copyright exists as soon as work is created and that each of the contracting countries receive automatic protection for works first published in other countries of the Berne union. 

WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) 

The WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) is an international treaty that is considered a special agreement under The Berne Convention and deals with the protection of works and the rights of their authors in the digital environment. It provides additional protection for computer programs and databases. 

GATT/WTO TRIPS 

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) together is the most comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property to date. It established minimum standards for the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights globally and covers patents, copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and other forms of intellectual property. 

The Digital Services Act (DSA) 

The Digital Services Act (DSA) is a regulation introduced by the European Commission to regulate digital services and online platforms within the European Union (EU). Coming into effect in early 2024, the DSA aims to introduce new obligations and responsibilities for online platforms, including large social media platforms, online marketplaces, and other intermediaries. The goal is to ensure a higher level of accountability for the content disseminated through these platforms. 

There are specific circumstances where the use of copyrighted materials is allowed without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder. These are known as copyright exceptions, limitations or exceptions to copyright.  

These exceptions play a crucial role in balancing the rights of copyright owners with the broader public interest in accessing and using creative works for purposes such as education, research, criticism, and news reporting. The specific exceptions can vary between countries, and they are often subject to specific conditions.

Copyright infringement occurs when someone violates the exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner without proper authorization. This can take various forms, and infringement typically involves the unauthorized use, reproduction, distribution, display, or creation of derivative works based on the original copyrighted material. 

Reproduction without permission 

Making unauthorized copies of copyrighted works, whether in print, digital, or any other format, constitutes infringement. This includes photocopying books, duplicating CDs or DVDs, or copying software. 

Distribution without authorization 

Distributing or selling copies of copyrighted works without the copyright owner’s permission is considered infringement. This can include selling counterfeit goods or unauthorized reproductions. 

Public performance or display without authorization 

Performing or displaying copyrighted works in public without the copyright owner’s permission may constitute infringement. This applies to activities such as public screenings of movies, performances of plays, or displaying artwork in public spaces. 

Derivative works  

Creating works that are derived from or based on copyrighted material without permission is infringement. This includes adaptations, translations, remixes, and other transformative works. 

Unauthorized digital distribution 

Uploading, downloading, or sharing copyrighted material online without the copyright owner’s permission, especially through file-sharing platforms, can be considered infringement. 

Software piracy 

Unauthorized copying, distribution, or use of software without a valid license or in violation of the terms of a license agreement is considered copyright infringement. 

Plagiarism 

Passing off someone else’s work as one’s own, without proper attribution or permission, may constitute both copyright infringement and academic plagiarism. 

Digital piracy 

Unauthorized distribution, sharing, or downloading of copyrighted material through digital channels, such as file-sharing platforms, torrent sites, or unauthorized streaming services, is a prevalent form of copyright infringement. 

Online content scraping 

Unauthorized copying or scraping of content from websites, blogs, or other online platforms without permission is a form of copyright infringement. 

Bootlegging 

Illegally recording or reproducing live performances, such as concerts or theatrical productions, and distributing or selling those recordings without permission is considered bootlegging and is a form of copyright infringement. 

Counterfeiting 

Producing and selling counterfeit copies of copyrighted goods, such as fake DVDs, CDs, or branded merchandise, constitutes copyright infringement. 

Photocopying for commercial use 

Unauthorized commercial photocopying and distribution of copyrighted material, such as textbooks or academic publications, without permission is a common form of infringement. 

Secondary liability 

Aiding, supporting, or enabling others to commit copyright infringement, such as hosting infringing content on a website, can lead to secondary liability. 

There have been several high-profile cases involving allegations of copyright infringement over the years. Below are a few examples.

A&M Records vs Napster

Napster was a popular peer-to-peer file sharing platform that launched in 1999 and used software called MusicShare which allowed users to search, make copies of, and transfer MP3 music files between devices.  

Outraged by this large-scale distribution of their music for free, various major record labels sued the company for infringement on their intellectual property, leading to Napster being forced to shut down the site and paying $26m in damages. The case significantly impacted the music industry’s approach to digital distribution and copyright enforcement. 

Bratz vs Barbie 

When Bratz dolls were introduced to the market, they became hugely popular and a key competitor for Barbie. However, the introduction of the dolls was not without legal troubles for their maker, MGA Entertainment Incorporation. The legal battle started due to doll designer Carter Bryant developing the Bratz concept and pitching the idea to MGA whilst working at Mattel.  

The initial court ruling favored Mattel, with the jury finding that Bryant had developed the concept for the Bratz dolls while employed at Mattel. MGA was ordered to pay substantial damages, and an injunction was issued against the production and sale of Bratz dolls. 

Rogers vs Koons 

The Rogers vs Koons case centered around Koons’ sculpture titled “String of Puppies,” which was part of his “Banality” series. Photographer Art Rogers claimed that Jeff Koons had copied a photograph he took in the late 1970s of a woman and her puppies for a greeting card.  

Rogers filed a lawsuit against Koons and the Sonnabend Gallery, alleging copyright infringement and seeking damages, however, Koons argued that his use of the photograph constituted fair use and was transformative. The court, however, ruled in favor of Rogers, stating that Koons had not transformed the original work enough to qualify as fair use and had not obtained permission to use the image. He was ordered to pay damages to Rogers. 

How can I avoid copyright infringement? 

Obtain proper permissions, licenses, or use works that are in the public domain or covered by open licenses. Be aware of copyright laws and exceptions and seek legal advice when uncertain. 

Can I use copyrighted material for educational purposes? 

Some jurisdictions have exceptions allowing the use of copyrighted material for educational purposes, but the specifics can vary. Always check the applicable laws and guidelines. 

Can I be held liable for copyright infringement if I share content online? 

Yes, sharing copyrighted content online without permission can lead to liability. Online platforms may also have policies to address copyright infringement, and they may take down infringing content. 

Can I use copyrighted material if I give credit to the creator? 

Giving credit to the creator is a good practice but does not automatically grant permission. Proper licensing or permission is still required unless the use falls under a recognized exception like fair use. 

What is the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism? 

Copyright infringement is a violation of the exclusive rights of a copyright holder, while plagiarism involves presenting someone else’s work as one’s own without proper attribution. They are distinct legal and ethical concepts. 

Can I use copyrighted material if I modify it significantly? 

Transformative use, where the new work significantly differs from the original, may be considered fair use. However, the extent of transformation is a key factor in determining legality. 

Can I use copyrighted material in my own creation if it’s for personal use only? 

Personal use doesn’t automatically exempt the use from copyright restrictions. While personal use may be a factor in fair use considerations, it’s not a blanket exception, and permission is often required for certain uses. 

Source: Google Transparency Report

How to protect your copyrighted works 

Understand your rights 

Familiarize yourself with the rights granted to copyright holders. These typically include the exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, display, and create derivative works based on your original work. 

Use copyright notices 

Include a copyright notice on your creative works to inform others of your copyright ownership. A copyright notice typically includes the copyright symbol (©), the year of first publication, and the name of the copyright owner. 

Register your copyright 

Consider registering your work with the relevant copyright office in your jurisdiction. While copyright protection is automatic upon creation, registration provides additional benefits, including the ability to seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees in case of infringement. 

Keep records of creation and ownership 

Maintain clear records of when your work was created and your ownership of it. This documentation can be valuable in proving your copyright claim if disputes arise. 

Use licensing agreements 

Clearly define the terms under which others can use your work through licensing agreements. Specify the scope of use, duration, and any compensation or royalties. Licensing agreements help establish expectations and can be legally enforceable. 

Consider creative commons licenses 

If you want to share your work with certain permissions, consider using Creative Commons licenses. These licenses allow you to dictate the terms under which others can use, share, and build upon your work. 

Watermark visual works 

If your work includes visual elements, consider adding a discreet watermark to discourage unauthorized use. While not foolproof, watermarks can serve as a visible indicator of ownership. 

Monitor and enforce your rights 

Regularly monitor the use of your work, especially online. If you discover unauthorized use, take prompt action to address the infringement. This may involve sending cease and desist letters, issuing takedown notices, or pursuing legal action if necessary. 

Use Digital Rights Management (DRM) 

For digital works, consider employing DRM technologies to control access to your content and prevent unauthorized copying. Remember that DRM’s effectiveness may vary, and it has supporters and critics. 

Educate others about copyright 

Clearly communicate your rights to others and educate them about copyright laws. This proactive approach can help prevent unintentional infringement and build respect for intellectual property. 

Join a Collective Management Organization (CMO) 

In some countries, CMOs exist to help manage and enforce the rights of copyright holders. Joining a CMO can simplify the process of licensing and collecting royalties for your work. 

✔️ Establishes a public record 

Registration creates a public record of your copyright ownership, making it easier for others to identify and contact you for permissions or licensing. 

✔️ Enhanced legal protection 

Registration provides additional legal benefits, such as the ability to seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees in case of infringement, meaning potential infringers are more likely to respect your rights. 

✔️ Presumption of validity 

Registration establishes a legal presumption that your copyright is valid. In legal proceedings, the burden of proving the validity of your copyright shifts to the party challenging it. 

✔️ International recognition 

In some cases, a copyright registration with a national copyright office may be used for seeking protection in other countries under international agreements. 

✔️ Prerequisite for lawsuits 

Registration is often a prerequisite for filing a copyright infringement lawsuit in many jurisdictions, allowing you to take legal action against infringers. 

Time and cost 

Registering your copyright involves time and financial costs. Fees may vary, and the registration process can be time-consuming. 

Automatic protection exists 

Copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of the work. Registration is not required for basic protection, and some creators may find the additional benefits do not justify the cost and effort. 

Limited retroactive benefits 

While registration provides certain legal benefits, it does not offer retroactive protection. If infringement occurs before registration, you may not be eligible for statutory damages or attorney’s fees for that period. 

Not a defense against infringement 

Registering your copyright does not prevent infringement. It is a tool for seeking legal remedies after infringement has occurred. 

Renewal requirements 

In some jurisdictions, copyright registration may require periodic renewals or updates, adding an ongoing administrative burden. 

Not a global solution 

While registration may simplify matters in certain jurisdictions, it does not provide global copyright protection. Considerations for international protection may involve separate procedures. 

Fair use considerations 

Registering your copyright does not prevent others from using your work under fair use or other exceptions.  

Case study: How Lipsy protects copyrighted celebrity images

“When we discovered Corsearch, the game changed. We were won over by the technology. Corsearch’s brand protection technology is incredibly powerful, with advanced image matching that has capability and scalability that far exceeds anything else we had used before.”

Sheena Yonker, Brand Protection Manager, Lipsy London

Discover how Lipsy safeguards the exclusive celebrity partnerships that are integral to its business through robust copyright enforcement. 

Lipsy protects consumers from counterfeits

Next steps: How to fight back against infringers 

We hope this guide has given you a clearer picture of the different copyright laws and how to protect your creations. The next step is to harness copyright and other intellectual property rights to protect your brand against infringers.  

At Corsearch, we partner with global businesses to tackle intellectual property abuse and piracy at source. Our Brand and Content Protection solutions enable businesses to safeguard the value of their creative work and protect online revenues.